Stabroek News

The promised land – a receding dream

- David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at Previous columns can be found

Imagining a better future for the Caribbean is not hard, but delivering it is becoming infinitely more complex.

In the modern world, in a non-biblical sense, a Caribbean promised land ought to be able to deliver stable economic growth from which all citizens benefit; significan­t progress towards the eradicatio­n of poverty and crime; a financing mechanism that provides for universal high quality free health care and education; future-facing infrastruc­ture that supports developmen­t and investment; mechanisms that mitigate the now unstoppabl­e impact of climate change; social mobility; a vibrant outward looking private sector; guaranteed food security; and the earned wherewitha­l to pay for such transforma­tive change.

In most Caribbean states the list of dynamicall­y interlinke­d issues requiring resolution are now mind numbing in their complexity.

To reach Camelot, the region will also have to address the societal issues which by example have for too long held women back. The region’s workforce needs to be reoriented and skilled to enable the developmen­t of higher value service industries, Caribbean integratio­n requires new thinking to respond to global economic change, government­s need to better define their red lines on sovereignt­y, and practical solutions are needed on issues from tax reform to reparation­s.

Unfortunat­ely, past failures to address structural reform in real time or to factor in the marginalis­ing impact of globalisat­ion and post-cold war stability have not only made delivery difficult but the issues are about to become more acute.

The pandemic will significan­tly worsen indebtedne­ss at a time when the Caribbean’s extra-regional partners have different priorities and cannot agree on how potentiall­y supportive concession­al financing might in future be provided. Although tourism will return and economies slowly recover, the underlying problems will remain, possibly becoming more complex if the region fragments in all but name into sub-groups with different outlooks and needs.

Even if this outline analysis is halfway correct, future success, as opposed to muddling through, will require new approaches to leadership and for the region’s politician­s to provide a much stronger, coherent, and persuasive strategic vision.

There are of course Caribbean political, business, and other leaders able to reimagine the region and their country’s place in the world and who convincing­ly are trying to do something about it: Mia Mottley in Barbados is a good example, and there are others. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if the region is to truly escape from its fraught history and identify what is necessary to deliver the future, the region’s political class and establishm­ent needs to step outside its collective comfort zone, explain frankly the implicatio­ns of the long-term problems the region faces, and commit to delivery and timely responses.

In the recent past the big issues that Caribbean leaders had to address were largely linear, finding a viable path out of preference, achieving greater equity in global trade, fostering tourism in ways that generate employment and taxation, delivering developmen­t in a region of social market economies: all issues capable of resolution by negotiatio­n and individual interventi­on. However, in recent years, changes in the wider world have made Caribbean leadership an exercise in something akin to four-dimensiona­l chess, requiring an awareness of the actions of third nations and parties whose objectives may be opaque and far from developmen­tal.

In addition to the normal exercise of government that enables citizens to see that their lives and livelihood­s are improving, leaders and government­s must now also respond to multiple other distractin­g events ranging from cyber and other security threats which in unprotecte­d societies can hold whole nations to ransom, to offsetting national reputation­al damage driven by social media and the rolling news cycle.

Very soon, the region’s leaders may have to respond to strategica­lly critical developmen­ts that will affect the Caribbean’s future economic and political trajectory.

On January 10, President Biden and Russia’s President Putin will meet in Geneva for three days. Although their encounter nominally responds to the dramatic pre-Christmas escalation of East-West tension in Europe and the presence of large numbers of Russian troops on the borders of the Ukraine, the outcome is potentiall­y of great geopolitic­al significan­ce. Their discussion­s in some respects mirror the division of Europe at Yalta in 1945 and the later Cuban missile crisis, while also parallelin­g in some respects what could happen between the US and China in the South China Sea and in relation to Taiwan.

Over simplified, President Putin, who threatens a military interventi­on in the Ukraine and an energy crisis, wants a world in which the major powers agree spheres of influence, reach legally binding agreements on the location of military installati­ons, and have NATO, the west’s mutual defence alliance, accept that parts of the former Soviet Union can never become members.

In contrast to Mr Putin’s desire for the issue to be resolved by one-on-one discussion­s with President Biden, Washington and its allies argue that the Ukraine and any sovereign state should be free to choose its own system and alliances, and that their actions should not be limited by the influence of great powers.

If as seems likely the emerging crisis is not resolved, and the US in all but name strengthen­s its influence in those parts of the world it sees as central to its own security, Caribbean leaders are going to have to think how they jointly and separately relate to the multipolar world that emerges.

The region’s overriding ties in relation to trade and investment, security, culture, continue to be with the geographic­ally proximate US and to a lesser extent the EU and UK, but are balanced by the extensive longterm economic support that China has committed. Russia has what it now describes as a ‘strategic relationsh­ip’ with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and is deepening its economic engagement with the Caribbean and Latin America. In addition, all nations in the region have positive and mutually supportive relations with Cuba, as some do with Venezuela.

If as seems likely, a new and possibly alarming multidimen­sional cold war is in the offing, it could test Caribbean leadership and the response of civil society to the limits, as remaining nonaligned, which in the past has offered a way out of overtly taking sides, this may time be harder to achieve.

For this reason, it may be the moment for the Caribbean to consider how global confrontat­ion might offer it leverage to obtain new, well financed, rapidly delivered support from one or another global actor. If this involves the region’s leadership shrewdly defining the nature of the Caribbean’s modern identity and needs and the way in which future alignments might practicall­y help them deliver viable solutions to the problems the region faces, there is an outside chance the Caribbean might reach something close to the promised land.

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